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California Court Overturns Permit Approval For Bakersfield Oil Train Terminal

Victory: San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District approved most permits in secret, with no real scrutiny of environmental risks
An oil train moves through California's Central Valley. The newly opened Bakersfield Crude Terminal has the capacity to receive two 100-car unit trains a day.

An oil train moves through California's Central Valley. In 2009, 10,000 tank cars transported crude oil in the entire United States. This one terminal alone proposed bringing in 73,000 cars a year.

Elizabeth Forsyth / Earthjustice
June 23, 2017
Taft, CA —

In a major legal victory against oil trains, the California Court of Appeal for the 5th District Court of Appeal has ruled that the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it approved permits for the Bakersfield Crude Terminal.

The Bakersfield Crude Terminal is the largest crude-by-rail terminal operating in California. Up to two 100-car trains per day can be processed by the terminal. A lawsuit brought by community and environmental groups concerned about the risks of such a large terminal—and the movement of millions of barrels of oil through their communities—challenged the permitting process, which was conducted largely in secret. 

A public records request revealed that Air District officials gave the terminal’s project manager advice about avoiding public noticing and pollution controls. The Air District approved the challenged permits under a ministerial permit that allowed for no public scrutiny. 

Earthjustice has been representing the Association of Irritated Residents (AIR), Stand, Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity. Communities for a Better Environment brought suit as well.

“We are pleased that the court recognized this blatant attempt to circumvent the environmental law California passed to protect communities, and to allow them a voice in public decision-making,” said Elizabeth Forsyth, the Earthjustice attorney who has been working on this lawsuit since it was filed in 2015. 

In addition to the emissions of volatile organic compounds from the off-loading of crude oil, the facility endangers Bakersfield and other communities in California by increasing the amount of crude transported by rail through the state. In 2009, 10,000 tank cars transported crude oil in the entire United States. This one terminal alone proposed bringing in 73,000 cars a year.

There have been multiple accidents across the nation and in Canada where these trains have derailed and exploded. An oil train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, destroyed most of the town center, burning more than 30 buildings to the ground and killing 47 people.

“Permitting this enormous project behind closed doors kept the communities who will be at risk all along the rail lines from knowing the threats they suffered. We are pleased the court is shining a light on it,” said Andres Soto of Communities for a Better Environment.

“This terminal wreaks havoc on our region's already compromised air quality, and our communities now fear the risk of exploding 100-car oil trains,” said Gordon Nipp, Sierra Club.

"We are gravely concerned about the callousness shown towards public health by the air district's illegal actions in permitting this facility," said Tom Frantz, AIR. 

“This victory will help protect thousands of Californians from the horrific risks created by huge shipments of explosive crude oil through our communities,” said Maya Golden-Krasner, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It puts regulators across the state on notice that they must evaluate the hazards of these massive oil train operations.”

"With dozens of oil train terminals in operation around the country, we must rely on air agencies to protect the public from toxic emissions,” said Matt Krogh, Stand. “If those same air agencies hide potential impacts, public health is sacrificed."

Read the opinion.